The Good Warfare

(1 Timothy 1.18-20)

- Jason Procopio

We all understand the importance of physical exercise and of eating right. We know everything we need to know, and we could even talk about these things and try to convince others to undertake them. But of course there’s a big difference between knowing you should eat right and knowing you should exercise, and actually doing it. All that knowledge doesn’t do much good if you don’t do the things you know to do.

Paul has begun his letter by urging Timothy to stop certain Christians from spreading false doctrines in the church. The aim of our charge, he said in v. 5, is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. He encouraged Timothy to keep the gospel central in everything that is said and done in the church: in the way the church uses Holy Scripture, in the way that Christians interact with one another, the central truth of the gospel should be what guides the church.

It’s important to understand that Paul’s not simply talking about cerebral dangers here—he’s not arguing for the centrality of the gospel merely to maintain a rigorous hold on intellectual properties. Rather, the things we believe have a significant impact on how we live, and vise versa. It’s not enough to merely know true things: the truth is useless if it is not lived out in practice, and the practice of our lives is the only way we can truly know if we have kept the gospel as central as we hope to: it is the practical proof God gives us that the truth abides in us. 

That’s the subject of today’s text, which is a difficult one. It’s actually quite a simple text: Paul begins with a big idea (which he’s already laid out in the passages we’ve been reading the last couple weeks), then progressively focuses his vision, getting down to particulars. But although the text is simple, it is still difficult—mainly because Paul ends with a statement which sounds so shocking and incendiary to our modern ears that once you’ve read it, it’s hard to think about anything else. So we’re going to do something a little unusual. We’re going to read this text backwards. We’re going to start with Paul’s shocking statement and what it means; then once we’ve understood why he says what he says, it will be easier for us to grasp his big idea.

1) Church Discipline (v. 20)

18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. Those are strong words. What is he talking about?

Well, we see another, slightly more explicit, example of this in 1 Corinthians 5. What he says there helps us understand what he means here (which he presumably knew Timothy would understand). Paul writes to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 5.1), It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

So Paul is talking about a case in which a member of the church who is engaging in persistent, unrepentant sin is actually expelled from the church. God gives the leaders of the local church (the pastors and elders) the authority to exercise discipline on members of the church if the situation calls for it—and the most extreme case is the expulsion of someone from the assembly. Now in our day this is hard for us to accept—we want to make every effort to include everyone, to not allow anyone to feel shunned or rejected. And that is, at least 99% of the time, a very good thing; so what Paul says here seems very unloving. Nevertheless, by what he says, Paul shows us a couple of very important things.

First of all, he shows us, through the idea of expulsion from the church, the importance of being members of a local church body, of being firmly integrated into a community of believers. We see it written all over the New Testament: Christians need one another. We are not islands, and we cannot grow in our faith if we are entirely separated from one another. Now, if you live on a desert island, with no one around, then sure—God is gracious and is perfectly able to make you grow. But in general, this is not how he intends to get us to grow. If we have access to a local community of believers, then God’s intention for us is that we integrate that community in order to grow together. 

And this is not optional—it’s important that we see that our insistance that Christians should be engaged in the life of the community is not a trend. We don’t talk about community so much because so many people are lonely and we want to fill a kind of felt need in their life. We talk about community because to be separated from the community of believers is to be handed over to Satan. The church is where God’s Spirit dwells; the church is now God’s temple here on earth. So to be expelled from the church is to be sent back out into the world, which is (at least for now, and partially) Satan’s domain. So we should not take the idea of living without our brothers and sisters lightly: we need each other.

Secondly, church discipline in any form and expulsion from the church in particular, is not a sign of condemnation but of love, to wake the person up to the gravity of their sin and drive them to repentance. The best example I’ve heard of this comes from John Piper, who told the story of his son. Piper was the pastor of his church in Minneapolis, and his son was a Christian (twenty years old or so) who was living in unrepentant sin. It was brought to the pastor’s attention and the attention of the elders; and after many attempts to convince him of his sin—both at home and at the church—they made the incredibly painful decision of expelling his son from the community. We can barely imagine how difficult this must have been for him. His son left the church and lived on his own for a long while. The simple shock of being expelled from the church by his own father floored him. And because he still believed in God, still believed in the truth of the gospel, he couldn’t get away from it: the incredible difficulty of trying to be a Christian without the support of the local church was unbearable. This experience woke him up to what he had been doing—that it was indeed sinful, that he had indeed made shipwreck of his faith—and so finally he came back to his father and the elders, repented of his sin and asked to come back into the life of the community. 

That was a day of celebration for that church. And that celebration is the intention of all church discipline, including expulsion. Paul says that he handed [Hymenaeus and Alexander] over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme, that they might learn that rejecting the Lord’s teaching is tantamount to rejecting him. He tells the Corinthians to expel the person committing these acts from the church, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. The goal of all church discipline is restoration. So you see, when Paul tells Timothy that the aim of our charge is love, and then just a few verses later says he has handed these brothers over to Satan that they may come to repentance, those two statements are perfectly compatible.

2) Shipwrecking Faith by Rejecting Conscience (v. 19)

So why does Paul give this example? It’s quite a serious statement, but it’s not an end in itself. Paul’s goal in this passage is not to talk about church discipline; rather, he gives this extreme example to underline the seriousness of the real issue. So what is the real issue, the issue that’s so serious? Let’s read our passage again: 18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.

There are two things that every Christian should possess and pursue, and they go together, as we see in v. 19: faith and a good conscience. The first is objective—“the faith” is the apostolic faith, transmitted to us through the teaching of the Word, by the work of the Holy Spirit; and the second is subjective—“a good conscience” is the voice of the Spirit telling us that we are growing in holiness, that we are becoming more like God. And Paul says (v. 19) that By rejecting this [that is, by rejecting this good conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith… 

Think of people who smoke. If you’ve never smoked, you’ll get what I mean: you know it smells bad, you see those awful pictures they put on cigarette boxes of black gums and shriveled lungs and mangled fetuses, with the massive letters spelling out “SMOKING KILLS” just above it…so you can’t for the life of you understand why anyone would ever smoke to begin with, much less continue to do so. When you see a smoker come down with lung cancer and get all upset when it happens, you’re tempted to say: You didn’t see this coming? It’s written on the box! Surely you’ve had time to emotionally prepare yourself for this. 

I myself understand completely why all those deterrents don’t always work. I smoked for several years, and I very keenly remember the pleasure of it. For the most part, smokers don’t smoke because they like the smell; they smoke because it feels amazing. So even though they know that all of those things written on the box are true, they simply choose not to think about it, because smoking feels so good.

This is the dynamic Paul is talking about here. We can hear his words and think, What kind of moron would reject his conscience? Surely they know how dangerous that is! And maybe they do. But the sin they’re tempted to just feels so good that all the reasonable arguments in the world aren’t enough to convince them that this thing, that feels so good, could really be all that bad. Some people hear the gospel and understand its coherency and its truth and its reasonableness, but refuse to listen to the voice of their conscience, telling them how to live. Although they can see what they should do and know that it’s right, they don’t want to do it. And so they actually convince themselves that what they’re doing isn’t really all that bad; they reject their consciences, and obstinately blind themselves to the truth.

And the consequences of rejecting conscience are serious: By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith. They become so desensitized to what their conscience is telling them that they are numb; and that numbness robs their faith of its power, like trying to walk on a foot that’s fallen asleep. That’s not to say that their faith is absent, but at any rate there’s no way to affirm with any kind of certainty that faith is really there. And it comes to a point where the only thing the church leaders can do is remove them from church fellowship. Because they shipwreck their faith, the last resort becomes necessary.

And so Paul encourages Timothy, in light of the seriousness of these realities, to wage the good warfare. We’re wary of this kind of language these days, so let’s take a minute to see what he’s talking about.

3) The Good Warfare (v. 18-19)

18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience.

Since the beginning of his letter, Paul has been exhorting Timothy to hold fast to what is true, and to charge others to do the same. Timothy is to stop others from teaching false doctrines in the church. So Paul is giving Timothy this charge in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you. He’s talking about an event in which a group of elders commissioned Timothy for the work of the ministry under the direction of the Holy Spirit, which he mentions a little later in the letter. We read in 4.14: Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. We don’t know what was said in these “prophecies,” or what the “gift” was that Timothy received—only that this moment amounted to Timothy’s being equipped and sent out to do the work God had for him. Paul’s point here isn’t to talk about the gift or the prophecy, but rather to insist on the fact that Timothy has everything he needs to do what God has called him to do. When Paul gives Timothy the charge to refute false doctrines in the church, it’s a charge Timothy is more than able to accomplish.

So Timothy was given these prophecies (second half of v. 18) that by them you may wage the good warfare… What is “the good warfare?” Well, now that we understand what comes after, we understand what he’s talking about—he’s not talking about a literal, physical battle, but a spiritual one: it’s the fight to see the gospel faithfully taught and lived out, in us and in our brothers and sisters. And we’ve already seen how Timothy is to do it: he is to hold to faith and a good conscience.

Timothy is to model for his church what it looks like to believe the Word of God. In other words, he is not merely called to teach these things, but to believe them! Holding fast to the truth is not an intellectual exercise; it does you no good to say right things if you don’t believe they’re true. Show them what it looks like to lean on the cross when you’ve sinned. Show them what it looks like to rejoice in your salvation! Fight the good fight for the truth, by holding your faith.

So he must hold the faith, but he must also hold a good conscience. John Calvin said, “A bad conscience is the mother of all heresies.” Timothy is to watch carefully—not just watch what he preaches, but also how he lives, and model that life for others. Why is this so important? What does a good conscience have to do with the good fight we’re called to wage?

First of all, because God wants to be glorified in us! He wants all of his children to live (v. 11) in accordance with the gospel of the GLORY of the blessed God. We can talk about our own subjective experience of God all day long; but other people can’t see that. What they will see, and what they will notice, is whether or not we’re different. 

But secondly (and this is the main thrust of what Paul’s saying here), God calls us to not only believe, but grow in obedience, because he wants us to have complete assurance of our salvation. John Stott wrote that “belief and behaviour, conviction and conscience, the intellectual and the moral, are closely linked. This is because God’s truth contains ethical demands. As Jesus said, ‘if anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out [or ‘know’] whether my teaching comes from God …’ In other words, doing is the key to discovering, obedience the key to assurance.” 

If you’re afraid of heights, what do you think you will feel when you finally decide to go bungee jumping? You creep to the edge of the ledge, you’re terrified and trembling… You jump off, and fall, and bounce back up and fall down again… What do you think you’ll feel after having done it? There’s a reason people get addicted to extreme sports: the experience of doing something you thought was impossible is incredibly empowering.

You see, faith and a good conscience are not mutually exclusive: one does not work without the other. You can say you believe the Bible tells the truth; if you don’t put it into practice, if you don’t obey what it tells you, that’s fairly convincing proof that you don’t really believe it. Faith and a good conscience confirm one another: faith tells us what God expects of us; and our conscience confirms that this faith is real and authentic, because we’re doing what our faith tells us to do.

And this assurance, the courage it gives us, is absolutely crucial for someone going to war. Someone who knows he will meet opposition won’t be able to stand for long if he’s not completely sure he’s ready to meet that opposition. Keeping faith and a good conscience is the only way for Timothy to hold fast before what is waiting for him in his church.

4) Truth in Action

So we’ve done it backwards; let’s reverse-engineer it now, reading the text in its proper order.

18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare… You have everything you need. Contend for the truth of the faith; reject false teaching. Hold fast to the truth of the gospel. And do it by 19 holding faith and a good conscience. If you know the gospel and love the gospel, then don’t just say it, show it. You won’t be able to contend for something you don’t live. If you want to be an advocate for the truth, then you need to live the truth. If you hold to faith without a good conscience, you’re not holding to faith at all: By rejecting this [good conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith… They have allowed themselves to drift into sin to such an extent that their consciences are seared, and their faith is so weakened that it does them no practical good. There are people who have drifted this far, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. Holding to the truth and living out that truth in holiness is such a serious matter that sometimes the only choice we have left is to enact church discipline, to make them see how far they’ve drifted, and how badly they need the truth.

Brothers and sisters, the seriousness of what Paul’s saying here cannot be overstated. God, in his grace, exhorts the leaders of his church to diligently defend the truth of the gospel, not because God needs defending, but because God’s people need that truth. We pastors are also called to work out that gospel in our behavior, waging the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience, so that our people might know God is working in us; that we might model this good fight for you, so that you might live the same way and have this same assurance. 

That’s the big idea of not only this text, but this entire first chapter—the truth of the gospel, rightly understood through the Holy Spirit, will always produce holiness: in the leaders of the church and in the lives of those in the church. In the face of false teaching, Timothy is to contend for the truth of the gospel,—not as an end in itself, but as the means by which God’s plan of salvation works its way out in the lives of his children.

So brothers and sisters, watch your leaders. Keep an eye on us. Paul tells Timothy to act a certain way so that his congregation might see him, and imitate him. And it’s important to remember that Paul doesn’t insist that Timothy be perfect, but rather that Timothy remember the gospel. That gospel will drive him to repentance every day, and that repentance will change his desires, will produce in him a love for holiness and a hatred for his sin. So keep an eye on your leaders. Watch how we live when we live well, and watch how we repent when we don’t. Trust me, I know how risky this is—so many people have been burned by their leaders. Our commitment to you is not that we will be perfect, but that we will pursue Christ.

And don’t just watch us—watch each other. Encourage one another to hold fast to the truth of the gospel. Take care to never deviate from that message—because that gospel is not just the means by which others will come to know Christ; it is also the tool in the Spirit’s hands to change us. It is by reminding each other that we are sinners and God is holy, that no matter how wide the gap is between us and him, the cross is big enough to fill it; that the debt has been paid, that Christ’s death and resurrection have been applied to our own lives… It is by knowing all this that we remember whose we are.

And if you have faith in Christ, then work out that faith in obedience: don’t reject your conscience, for your obedience will actually convince you more and more that God’s Word is true, and enable you to better discern when doctrinal drift begins to occur—your obedience will prove that the gospel is trustworthy, and that God is faithful to fulfill his promises.

Don’t make shipwreck of your faith. Wage the good warfare. Hold to the faith, and a good conscience.